Another shocking World Cup story unfolded in Qatar but this one was about the football. It began with Lionel Messi creating a small slice of history for Argentina and ended with Saudi Arabia players, including the captain on crutches, bouncing around the Lusail Stadium in joyful disbelief after producing one of the greatest upsets the competition has seen.
The script was set. Argentina arrived as one of the World Cup favourites, as Copa América champions, unbeaten in 36 matches and with Messi on one last mission to embellish his historic career with the crowning glory.
And they took the lead with 10 minutes gone thanks to a penalty from their 35-year-old superstar.
The script was shredded by a side ranked 51st in the world – one below Qatar, oddly enough – and Argentina’s and Messi’s plans will follow suit without a response against Mexico and Poland.
Group C has suddenly become fraught with danger for the two-time winners after a result that will reside in the World Cup annals alongside USA v England in 1950, Northern Ireland v Spain in 1982 and Argentina’s loss to Cameroon in the opening game of the 1990 tournament. Diego Maradona’s team recovered to reach the final that year.
Messi considers Qatar his final chance to emulate his late, great predecessor in the No 10 shirt. But not like this.
A stupendous strike from Salem al-Dawsari, five minutes after Saleh al-Shehri cancelled out Argentina’s merited lead, delivered the greatest moment in Saudi Arabia’s football history. Players, coaches, backroom staff and the hobbling captain Salman al-Faraj, whose World Cup was ruined by a first-half injury, poured on to the pitch when the Slovenian referee Slavko Vincic ended their torment after 14 minutes of stoppage time. The World Cup final venue was audibly buzzing with shock long after the final whistle. It had pulsated throughout with the noise of a mass Saudi crowd.
Hervé Renard, the Saudi Arabia head coach who won the Africa Cup of Nations with Zambia and the Ivory Coast and was dismissed after a few matches in charge of Cambridge United, called it a classic example of football’s ability to spring “something completely crazy”.
He was correct in many respects. Argentina had three goals disallowed for offside in the space of 13 first-half minutes.
They squandered chances and ran into a commanding goalkeeper in the shape of Mohammed al-Owais. His opposite number, Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martínez, had precious little to do other than twice collect the ball out of his net.
Yet there was merit in Saudi Arabia’s stunning upset. They were tireless, dangerous, physical and supremely well-organised in the second half with the central defender Hassan al-Tambakti leading an impassioned resistance. And their goals were exquisite, the winner especially.
Lionel Scaloni’s team began brightly. The impressive Argentinian support were almost rewarded with the perfect start when Messi forced Owais into a fine low save with 96 seconds gone. They did not have to wait much longer for the moment they craved.
Vincic halted play after a Messi free-kick was punched clear by the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper. Saudi hearts sunk as he sprinted to the pitch-side monitor to watch a replay of Saud Abdulhamid wrestling Leandro Parades to the ground at a corner seconds earlier.
It was a clear, VAR-guided penalty. Messi walked up to the spot, waited for Owais to commit himself to the left, and rolled a nonchalant penalty to the keeper’s right. In doing so, Messi became the first Argentina player to score at four World Cup tournaments – 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2022 – and the fifth man in history to achieve the feat.
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a high defensive line was a high-risk strategy that almost played in Argentina’s hands in the first half.
Messi was clearly off when played through by Alejandro Gómez and beating Owais with a measured finish. Lautaro Martínez was also clearly off when rounding the Saudi Arabian keeper and converting Messi’s through ball.
The Internazionale forward was desperately unlucky for Argentina’s second offside goal, however, with VAR ruling the tip of his shoulder was a fraction ahead of Abdulhamid as he raced onto Rodrigo De Paul’s defence-splitting pass. Scaloni had no complaints.
Argentina’s inability to make their dominance count allowed Saudi Arabia to depart at half time with hope. They re-emerged as an unrecognisable attacking force, and turned the game, Argentina and Group C on its head within eight minutes of the restart.
Saudi Arabia levelled when Feras al-Brikan turned a ball out of midfield into the path of Shehri. The striker, one of nine starters in the Saudi lineup to play for Al Hilal, surged past Cristian Romero on the left before beating Martínez with a clinical finish that crept inside the far post.